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Seeking Advice on Conditionals with 'Unless'



Date Submitted: 21-Feb-2012
From: AElfwine Mischler
Subject: Seeking Advice on Conditionals with 'Unless'
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Notice: I am an editor of EFL textbooks and one of my main tasks is answering questions about grammar and usage from our users on our company website. There is one area of grammar that I am having difficulty in explaining — conditional sentences, particularly those with “unless”.

The books written for teachers don’t have the details I need, and The Cambridge Grammar (Huddleston and Pullum) and A Comprehensive Grammar (Quirk et al.) explain things in different terms than teachers do.

In case you are not familiar with them, here are the EFL terms and our explanation for them:

zero: used for things that always or usually occur (If I find any money, I give it to charity.)

first: used for things that are likely to occur (If I find any money, I’ll give it to charity.)

second: used for things that are unlikely to occur (If I found any money, I would give it to charity.)

third: used for things that did not occur in the past (If I had found any money, I would have given it to charity.)

H&D classify conditionals as open and remote. If I understand them, open conditionals correspond to what EFL teachers call zero and first conditionals, while remote conditionals correspond to second and third (and to all or most mixed conditionals).

Recently I’ve received questions about the use of “unless”. But various examples and explanations have been bouncing around my head so much that I can no longer hear what is correct.

The original question was this: Rewrite this sentence using “unless”: He isn’t rich, so he can’t buy a car. The questioner (a teacher) thought the answer was: Unless he were rich, he would buy a car. Another teacher suggested this answer: Unless he were poor, he would buy a car. My own answer was: Unless he’s rich, he can’t buy a car.

L. G. Alexander says in Longman English Grammar, that “unless” cannot normally be used to refer to unreal situations such as type 2 and 3 conditionals. H&D say that “unless” “occurs in open conditionals and, less freely in remote ones.” The only example they give is (p 755) “I wouldn’t suggest such a plan unless I thought it was feasible.” Putting that in our EFL terms, that would be interpreted as “I do think it’s feasible so I do suggest it.”

Examples in grammar books or news archives are zero or first conditionals. But teachers say they are teaching students to use “unless” in all four types of conditionals (although these are not in our textbooks). But it seems to me that if second and third conditionals are used, they don’t have the same meaning that we usually give to these sentences. Or perhaps I need more details about when “unless” can be used in remote conditionals.

(1) I’ll go to the party if I don’t get a headache. (I may or may not get a headache, so I may or may not go to the party.)

(2) I’ll go to the party unless I get a headache. (I may or may not get a headache, so I may or may not go to the party.)

(3) I would go to the party if I didn’t have a headache. (But I do have a headache, so I’m not going.)

(4) ?I would go to the party unless I had a headache. (I haven’t actually been invited to the party, but if I were...)

(5) I would have gone to the party if I hadn’t had a headache. (But I did have a headache, so I didn’t go.)

(6) ?I would have gone to the party unless I had had a headache. (I wasn’t actually invited to the party, but if I had been...)

And am I understanding open and remote conditionals correctly? Can you clarify when “unless” can and cannot be used in remote conditionals? When “unless” is used in a remote conditional, does it change the usual interpretation of the conditional? Are my sentences (4) and (6) unacceptable?

Thank you so much!